Saudi Arabia allowed women to enter a football stadium for the first time to watch a match Friday, as the ultra-conservative kingdom eases strict decades-old rules separating the sexes.
The new measure comes after Riyadh, long known for imposing harsh restrictions on women, announced it was lifting a ban prohibiting them from driving, as well as reopening cinemas.
Women supporters, all wearing the traditional black abaya robe, arrived well ahead of kick-off in the Jeddah stadium, some in sunglasses and others with loose-fitting veils.
The Islamic kingdom has announced a series of reforms initiated by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since last year.
The first football match women are being allowed to attend is a clash between Saudi Premier League clubs Al-Ahli and Al-Batin in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.
Alone or accompanied by their families, many women sat in reserved seats in Jeddah’s Pearl stadium.
The game was scheduled to kick off at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT), but enthusiasm for the historic encounter began well before the kick-off.
Lamya Khaled Nasser, a 32-year-old football fan from Jeddah, said she was proud and looking forward to the match.
“This event proves that we are heading for a prosperous future. I am very proud to be a witness of this massive change,” she told AFP.
Ruwayda Ali Qassem, another Jeddah resident, called Friday a “historic day in the kingdom which culminates (in) ongoing fundamental changes”.
“I am proud and extremely happy for this development and for the kingdom’s moves to catch up with civilised measures adopted by many countries,” she said.
The Saudi government said last week women would be allowed to attend a second match on Saturday and a third next Thursday.
The kingdom, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, has long barred them from sports arenas through strict rules that keep the sexes apart in public.
‘HAPPINESS AND JOY’
But in September, hundreds of women were allowed to enter a sports stadium in the capital Riyadh, used mostly for football matches, for the first time to attend celebrations marking the country’s national day.
The easing of social controls comes as Prince Mohammed looks to repackage the oil-rich nation as more moderate and welcoming.
The powerful crown prince’s “Vision 2030” programme for a post-oil era stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from an energy slump.
Noura Bakharji, another Jeddah resident, said she always felt bitter when her brothers came back from stadiums to tell her about the excitement of watching football matches in person.
“I always watched games on TV while my brothers went to the stadiums… I asked myself repeatedly ‘Why I can’t go?'” she told AFP.
“Today, things have changed. It’s a day of happiness and joy.”
Hours before the game, Saudi clubs were encouraging women to attend through tweets on social media.
Some clubs are offering special abayas — traditional head-to-toe robes for Saudi women — in team colours.
State-owned Saudi Airlines announced prizes of free tickets for five families who want to travel between cities to watch games.
Peter Schmeichel believes Manchester United must prioritise the Premier League this season – even if it comes at the expense of winning trophies.
Second-place United have little chance of lifting the domestic title this season due to runaway leaders Manchester City, who are 15 points clear of their neighbours at the top.
Jose Mourinho’s side won both the Europa League and EFL Cup last term and can still go for glory in the FA Cup and Champions League, with the last-16 tie against Sevilla looming.
However, Schmeichel insists United must pour all their energy into cracking the top four – they are currently six points ahead of fifth-place Tottenham – after finishing down in sixth last season.
“The key is improvement, success has got to be a better league position than last season,” the Dane told Sport360. “I know United won the League Cup and the Europa League but you have to separate those out.
“Yes they’re trophies and they’re nice to have, but for me success has to be a better league position. We’re going well in the Champions League as well so let’s see what happens there as well.”
United have not looked close to winning the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and former goalkeeper Schmeichel admits the club are still feeling the aftershocks of his departure.
“We’re still catching up and rebuilding, which is not easy in this current footballing climate when everyone has a huge amount of money to spend,” he added.
“Manchester United is going in the right direction though as it was two very important people who left at the same time – Sir Alex and David Gill and so a lot of experience was lost.”
Schmeichel is currently in the country for the Abu Dhabi Invitational golf tournament, which is taking place at Yas Links over the weekend.
Dwight Yorke joins his former United colleague on a celebrity team that includes Ruud Gullit, Alessandro del Piero and Luis Figo.
The event, which concludes today, is raising money for the Cancer Care Patient Society – Rahma. For all the latest action, visit abudhabiinvitational.ae.
Manchester City are prepared to walk away from a deal to sign Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez, it is understood.
The Premier League leaders feel the overall price for signing the Chile forward this month – transfer fee, agent costs and wage demands – is currently too high and must come down.
City are not concerned if this stance opens up a route for another club, even arch-rivals Manchester United, to step in.
Sanchez has long been a target for City and they offered £60million for the 29-year-old, without success, last summer. They would now hope to do a deal for a fee of around £20million but are understood to have been quoted £35million.
City have been convinced of Sanchez’s desire to work with his former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola again for some time but they were prepared to wait until his contract expires in June.
A knee injury suffered by Gabriel Jesus on New Year’s Eve had the potential to change thinking and bring forward a potential deal, but the Brazilian’s problem is not as bad as feared.
With assessments suggesting Jesus could be back in training within three weeks, City have no urgent need to bring in another forward this month.
City understand Sanchez is keen to leave the Emirates Stadium in the current transfer window but they will not be pressured into overpaying by the player’s representatives, Arsenal or by the interest of any other club.
Reports emerged on Thursday that United were keen to enter the race for Sanchez but there has been no confirmation from Old Trafford.
City boss Guardiola refused to discuss the matter at a press conference to preview his side’s clash with Liverpool this weekend.
Guardiola said: “I understand completely this question, I understand you are doing your job, but you know my answer.
“I am not going (to speak about it). I’m focused on Liverpool, believe me. Alexis – everyone knows how good he is, but I am not going to answer about Alexis or other players.”
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, has stressed that Sanchez will only be allowed to leave the north London club this month if a replacement is found.
The Gunners, who maintain they have not yet received an approach for Sanchez, have been linked with Bordeaux’s Brazilian forward Malcom.
Wenger said: “Of course I want a quick resolution.
“Is he (Sanchez) replaceable in the way that we find exactly the same player? Certainly not, but there’s always a way to find a different balance.
“Alexis is an exceptional football player, he’s a world-class player and if that happens (he leaves) we have to find a different balance in the team.
“I have had many conversations about him and we talked about the fact that people are always observing you with a microscope when you’re on a short-term contract, but I’ve never questioned his professional attitude when he’s on the football pitch.”
Supplied by Press Association Sport